Playoff time for UMass hockey

By Ross Gienieczko

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(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

After a tumultuous regular season ended with a 4-0 loss to Connecticut at the XL Center in Hartford on Friday, it was time for the Massachusetts hockey team to turn its attention to the postseason.

But first, the Minutemen had to watch the scoreboard Saturday night to see who their opponent would be. As UMass (10-21-2, 5-16-1 HEA) was locked into the 12th seed, a pack of teams – including Northeastern, UMass Lowell and Notre Dame – jockeyed for position on the final night of the regular season.

In the end, the Irish (15-16-5, 10-7-5 HEA) finished as the fifth seed, and the result for the Minutemen is a three-game series held this weekend in South Bend, Indiana in the first round of the Hockey East tournament.

In their second season as a member of Hockey East, the Irish are led by skilled forwards Vince Hinostroza (eight goals, 30 assists) and Mario Lucia (19-8), and backstopped by freshman goaltender Cal Peterson (13 wins, .923 save percentage). Overall, Notre Dame boasts a deep, talented roster with 10 NHL draft picks on the team.

“They’re a good cycling team. They like to possess the puck down low. We’re going to have to defend in our own zone and take pucks away,” UMass coach John Micheletto said before practice on Tuesday.

Senior alternate captain Zach LaRue was also complimentary of the Irish.

“They finish every check, they take pucks to the net, and they’re a fast team,” LaRue said. “They have a lot of skilled guys.”

The depth and skill of Notre Dame was displayed earlier this season when the Irish came to Amherst for a weekend series. In the opening game, Notre Dame exploded for seven goals in a wild 7-5 win over the Minutemen. In the second game of the set, the Irish tightened up defensively and dominated in a 4-0 shutout win, limiting UMass to just 14 shots on net.

Since that weekend, the Minutemen have made strides on both sides of the puck. The addition of Brandon Montour brought much-needed life into the defensive corps, and Steve Mastalerz emerged from his early season funk to reclaim the starting role in net. An improved UMass team notched wins over No. 14 Merrimack, No. 11 UMass Lowell and No. 12 Providence in the second half of the season.

But their season ending loss to UConn left the Minutemen locked into last place in Hockey East. Since the top four teams in the conference earn a first round bye, Notre Dame is the highest ranked team playing in the first round.

“We have no problems being the underdogs and I think throughout the year, we’ve proved when we play the way we can, we can beat any team,” LaRue said.

Mastalerz has a similar mindset heading into postseason play.

“Anyone can beat anyone on any given night,” he said Tuesday. “It’s the playoffs, anything can happen. I don’t think seeding really matters, and I’m pretty sure (Notre Dame) thinks the same way.”

For the six seniors on the UMass roster, this weekend could be the last games they play in a UMass jersey. But that’s not something Mastalerz is focused on.

“You don’t want to think about your last games here. You just keep a focus on Friday night and take it one game at a time,” Mastalerz said.

But LaRue acknowledged the sudden death atmosphere that comes with postseason hockey.

“It’s do or die,” LaRue said. “One game can make the difference, and you don’t have time to rebound the next night. In the regular season, you can always come back next weekend. Not in the playoffs.”

The Minutemen will lean on their top players this weekend as they attempt to pull off the upset. Montour was not with the team in the first meetings with Notre Dame, but has exploded onto the scene in the second half of the year. With three goals and 13 assists, he’s the highest scoring defensemen on the team, and has been counted on to make impact plays in all three areas of the ice.

Other top scorers like Dennis Kravchenko and Frank Vatrano will be counted on for offensive production. Kravchenko had a quiet weekend against the Irish with just one assist, but Vatrano netted a pair of goals and added an assist as well. Offensively, UMass’s success will largely depend on the production of the trio.

Defensively, the Minutemen might be overmatched. After allowing 11 goals in two games against Notre Dame, their success will hinge on limiting chances and making the Irish shoot from predictable areas.

And of course, Mastalerz will need to make a few big saves if UMass hopes to advance.

Above all else, Micheletto said the key to the weekend was having a short memory.

“You have to have a short memory, within the game and after the game. You have to have that ‘survive and advance’ mentality.”

Puck drop is set for game one of the series on Friday night at Compton Family Ice Arena at 7:35 p.m. Start time on Saturday night (and Sunday if necessary) is scheduled for 7:05 p.m.

Ross Gienieczko can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @RossGien.